Career Advice

Making the Military Grade in the Diploma Mill

A news story from WHNT NEWS in Huntsville, Alabama exposed how people in high positions in the military and missile defense have purchased their degree without spending all the time, energy and money – at a diploma mill, where no classes and no course work are necessary…just cash.

The story focuses on a defense contractor with security clearance and phony degrees.

What’s the harm?

So here we have a contractor responsible for handling very sensitive information – The person is susceptible to pressure to blackmail to being told that he needs to provide some information or else they’re going to nail him. They’ll make him lose his job and this is a person in a position of great responsibility. It’s really, really frightening” says George Gollin, who worked with the federal government to prosecute diploma mills.

“Any corrupt individual would be harmful to the defense of the United States of America whether it would be this issue or other issues,” said Brigadier General David Grange.

Comment Archive

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    Very interesting story. If he has a clearance then he had to fill out an SF-86. Did he list St. Regis University on his SF-86 or did he buy his degree after he already had his clearance? If he did list it then he lied on the SF-86 about earning a degree. What also concerns me is why was this not caught during his background investigation if he did list in on his SF-86.

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    This issue is a lot more complicated than it appears. Susceptibility to blackmail aside, this is really an employment qualification issue rather than a security clearance issue. There is no educational qualification for a security clearance. Every educational degree should find its own level of value in the marketplace, and it’s the job of the person making the hiring decision to determine its value and whether it meets the minimum requirements for the job.

    Post-secondary degrees can range from those awarded by true degree mills to those awarded by prestigious accredited universities. Between these two extremes are accredited and unaccredited traditional and non-traditional educational institutions that award degrees based on credit for work experience, CLEP exams, online or correspondence courses, and/or actual classroom courses.

    It’s the job of the security clearance investigator to verify any degree claimed on a clearance application form, but I believe it’s beyond the scope of the investigator’s job to determine the value of the degree. This is particularly true when verifying education through written inquiries, as in the case of ANACIs. The clever degree mills will require their degree candidates to do something more than just send them money for a diploma. This could be something as simple as taking an online test and/or submitting a description of their work history. It’s just not practical to require security clearance investigator to evaluate the school to determine whether it is a degree mill or a legitimate non-traditional educational institution. It’s equally impractical to require the investigator to report on the exact requirements the applicant fulfilled to receive a degree.

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    I agree it is impossible to determine the value of a degree through a written inquiry yet if an investigator physically goes out to an address of a school and address happens to be a store front in a strip mall then the investigator should be concerned about the validity of the school. Now the investigator should not be the one to investigate the validity of the school as it is not their job but the investigator should pass his/her concern on so the proper organization can investigate the school to determine if it is an actual school or a diploma mill. I am not saying that all diploma mills are going to be in store fronts but if something just does not add up regarding a school a security clearance investigator visits or contacts in the course of the background investigation the investigator should pass this on to the proper organization so the school can be looked into.

    Also I am a bit confused by your last sentence Mr. Henderson. “It’s equally impractical to require the investigator to report on the exact requirements the applicant fulfilled to receive a degree.” When I obtain a educational transcript I do not list every class a SUBJECT took but I do list how many credit hours the SUBJECT took each semester as well as if the SUBJECT was placed on academic warning, academic probation or academic suspension during any of those semesters. I recently worked on a case in which the SUBJECT indicated on his SF-86 that he earned an engineering degree from a university in my area. His transcripts indicated he failed all of his classes the last semester he was in school therefore not earning his engineering degree. I reported this information. The information I reported indicated SUBJECT did not fulfill the requirements required to earn his degree. Am I reading your last statement wrong?

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    I agree with you. Investigators can and should include any relevant observations in Agent’s Notes (but not their opinions or conclusions). As a practical matter that’s about as far as the investigator can take it.

    If you’re dealing with a real diploma mill, it would be very unusual for them to open their records to you. Chances are they are only going to verify personal identifying data and provide dates and degrees awarded.

    Another problem is that many diploma mills don’t stay in business for more than a few years. I remember one case where the address listed for a school that awarded the Subject a Ph.D. only three years earlier was in a building occupied by several retail stores in Fresno, CA. The school was no longer located there and presumably went out of business. Without expanding the investigation to cover rental records of the school, there was no way of knowing how much space the school occupied or what went on there. We (DSS) were prohibited from investigating any entity other than the Subject of a security clearance investigation. Other than attempting to determine the current location of the school’s student records, any effort to learn more about the school would have violated that prohibition.

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    Well in about two weeks I will be out of the field on a 6 month detail to our training department.
    I am looking forward to it.

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    Well deserved break I’m sure–I could use one, instead I am off TDY to get other inv’s out of the hole they have dug in to. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to keep up and keep the books clear if you know what I mean. Hope you enjoy the training gig.

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    I assume you are going to be involved in training investigators. If you can, please let me know how much time is devoted to teaching the adjudicative guidelines.

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    I’m betting none. I’ve been in this business a while now and have self-taught only after starting my participation in this forum. You and other Adjudicators sparked interest otherwise I would have little understanding of the guidelines–Not that I am an expert, but now I’m learning.

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    I hope you’re wrong. BTW I’ve never been an adjudicator. In all the years I was involved in this business, I’ve never received any formal training on adjudicative criteria. The first time I saw the Adjudicative Guidelines was when I accidentally found it in the appendices of the OPM investigative manual: the old DSS manual did not include a copy.

    The Oct 08 Intelligence Community Policy Guidance #704.1 says that “All investigative personnel shall receive initial and ongoing training to include: . . . adjudicative processess and standards.” I guess we’ll have to wait and see if anyone pays any attention to “guidance” issued by the Director of National Intelligence.

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    I could be wrong; I know the training has gotten much longer these days for new folks. With my Criminal background, I had 4 days of training and a test and hit the field. Now, the first company I worked for as a SPIN Inv gave me 3 hours of training in a persons dining room near my home–I learned nothing, was handed a manual, computer and an envelope full of SPINS and was told to go to work. I had to learn the manual on my own, PIPS on my own and the correct reporting requirements for OPM. Maybe they will teach it–I’m always game for any training.

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    I am not sure if you get the same thing BW from your company but ever quarter we get the top five reasons cases our investigators compelte are deficient as well as tips from our QC people on how to prevent these deficiencies. This past quarter the top five reasons were:

    1.)Issue information not fully discussed. This is always a big one unfortunately.

    2.)Investigators not following up on developed info i.e.: RESI, EMPL, EDUC developed in the coverage period or developed issues in the coverage period.

    3.) Employment record not obtained. I am not really sure why this is a big problem. For every employment assigned to me I get an employment record.

    4.) Employment personal coverage not obtained. I think the confusing part here is we need to get at least two people to cover the entire time frame a SUBJECT worked at an employment. Many investigators just get two people and think they have covered the employment.

    5.) Insufficient details in Investigator’s Notes. I have been dinked on this a few times. I understand what I am typing because I have a personal knowledge of why I can’t get the information needed for the case. Yet the person reading my ROI my not understand what I am explaining. I had a team leader refer to Investigator Notes as “CYA notes”. This is true, we are CYA ourselves as to why we could not get the information needed for the case.

    Just thought I would share and get others comments.

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    You left out the most important thing. Knowing how the reviewer wants the info worded to his/her tastes. Good times, there..

    I tried to post on a previous thread regarding “six accused of falsification”, but it seems to be locked. I wanted to ask if anyone has heard that OPM will be reducing its dependence on contractors? After a brief leave from one contractor and just recently getting ready to start as an independent with another, I would like to see a increase in OPM hiring (who wouldn’t, right?). Going back to that thread, I still do not understand who these people are that make the decisions on the timeline of case completions. It seems that OPM holds the contractors to a higher standard than its own FISD.

    Then you have the incessant greed from a certain contractor that treats their field staff like cows to a slaughterhouse. I think we all know which company that is.

    I’m hoping in my new role, I will be able to focus on quality reports and not MOC, PRT, MSL, etc,etc. And not how much it will cost the company.

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    Good luck on the new gig, but with OPM’s new mandate starting this year, there will be no company cutting slack on inv’s. OPM has to meet it’s newly mandated goals of about 30 day turnaround on cases. We Investigators seem to be the only ones who know this is not possible with our low manning in alot of areas around the country. Case in point, I am in a very busy area, but I am TDY to help other areas now. Manning will not keep up with demand.

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    Sorry, I haven’t heard of any slowing for contractors. Without us, this business would crumble quickly. The FIS folks do not have the manning to keep up. I agree we are held to higher standards with respect to workload–I consistently complete about 3 times what the FIS folks do in my area. I recently spoke to one and he has 500 months of coverage per month (sometimes less) and that is a star performer there. I have never had that little amount of work.